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the night Timothy Leary sort of soared through the air

April 25, 2011

Of all the psychedelic pioneers I’ve been posting about recently, Timothy Leary is

easily the one most associated with LSD.  His story has been well-chronicled, but

there are some aspects of it that get overshadowed by his insistence that we “turn

on, tune in, drop out”.  (The phrase was actually coined by Marshall McLuhan.)

His maverick ways started early.  When he was 20, he went to West Point to become

an Army officer. He soon racked up enough infractions to be “silenced”, or shunned

by his fellow cadets, as ordered by the academy’s Honor Committee.  Leary refused

to quit.

He was acquitted by a court martial but the silencing continued, as well as a barrage

of demerits for petty rule-breaking.  This continued in Leary’s second year at West

Point.  His mother asked a family friend, U.S. Senator David I. Walsh, to investigate.

Walsh did and the Honors Committee reversed its position.  Leary then resigned his

commission and “dropped out” of the Army.

But his military experiences didn’t end there.  Leary enrolled at the University of

Alabama and joined the ROTC.  In 1942, after being expelled for spending the night

in a girls’ dorm, he was drafted back into the Army.  He was honorably discharged,

never serving overseas.

Leary bounced around in academia for years, receiving his PhD at UCal Berkeley.

He taught there for several years, then crossed the Bay to work at the Kaiser Family

Foundation for several more.  In 1959 he started his famous stint at Harvard.  It was

there that he found out about psychedelics.  As he and his colleague Richard Alpert

used them personally and with students, he became an embarassment.  The univer-

sity fired him in 1963.

Let’s skip ahead to Jaunuary 1970.  After many run-ins with the law, Leary was sent

to California Mens’ Colony, a minimum/medium security prison near San Luis

Obispo.  He was to serve 20 years.  At CMC he was given a battery of psychological

assessments to determine his work assignment.  Besides being test-wise in general,

one of the diagnostics had been designed by the acidmeister himself.

He reinvented himself as a docile, compliant person seeking leadership and having

a keen interest in gardening.  That landed him a job on the prison grounds, where

he figured out an extremely early release.  He secretly built up his upper body


On a cloudy September night, with his sneakers painted black, he snuck into the

prison yard, climbed a tree, and grabbed a telephone cable.  Hand over hand, Leary

went 40 yards to a pole outside the fence.  His glasses fell off and a guard car passed

under him at one point.  But he went undetected.  He walked a mile to Highway 1,

where a car provided by the Weather Underground awaited him.

Leary and his wife Rosemary were smuggled to Algeria by the Weathermen.  He

sought out Eldridge Cleaver, an exiled leader of the Black Panthers.  That went

sour quickly and the Learys flew to Switzerland, claiming Cleaver tried to hold

them hostage.  Cleaver was being pressured by the CIA.  The Learys got away by

donating to the Revolution.

The Swiss held Leary for a month, but refused to extradite him.  Rosemary left

Leary there and within months he had a new “wife”.  He and his new companion,

Joanna Harcourt-Smith, flew to Austria, then to Lebanon, then to Afghanistan,

where the DEA nabbed him in ’73.

Leary bounced around California prisons for three years, bunking next to Charles

Manson in Folsom.  Manson told Leary he was a big fan.  In ’76 Leary was released

after providing the FBI information on the Weathermen.  Leary later claimed that

the info was inconsequential and led to no convicti0ns.  But his counter-culture

credentials were tarnished.  He spent the remainder of life writing and lecturing.

I saw Leary shortly before his death in’96.  He was at an L.A. nightclub performing

as a “stand-up philosopher”.  The man that Richard Nixon had once called “the most

dangerous man in America” was by then what I can only describe as a doddering old



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